The Quaker Dynamic:
and Corporate Vision
I want to express my
appreciation for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. I believe that it
represents an important development toward mutual understanding, appreciation
and conciliation among Friends. The clarity and mutual support among Quaker
universalists overcomes some of the threatened feelings one sometimes can feel
in our meetings. New Foundation Fellowship and other Christ-centered Friends
groups serve a similar function. Our various groups define more clearly for our
times the two poles of Quakerism that are essential for a vigorous, creative
Society of Friends. Therefore, I want to say as much as I can about where I
agree with essential Quaker universalism. I also want to make my case for what
is essential about the Christian identity of Quakerism.
For me, there are
two levels to the issue among us. One is personal faith; the other is shared
witness. I find few Friends, universalist or Christian, who seem to share this
two-level view, so what I say here is by no means common understanding among
First, let me speak
to the level of personal faith and share a little of my own background as a
Friend. I grew up in a large pastoral meeting in Indianapolis. This particular
meeting was Christ-centered, like all pastoral meetings, but it was not really
evangelical. Historically, it represents the modernist-liberal trend in
Gurneyite Quakerism that continues to be strong in Friends United Meeting.
Incidentally, it is this stream that produced Rufus Jones and informed his
concern for Quaker renewal at the turn of the century. The Quaker worship I
grew up with had Bible stories, hymns, and sermons, as well as time for
unprogrammed worship. Its meetings for business would be hard to
differentiate from meetings for business here at Brooklyn Meeting or elsewhere.
The Christian religious education I received was not dogmatic; it simply washed
over me. Thus, my early Christian experience was perhaps different from that of
some Quaker universalists who felt repressed by a more dogmatic form of
Christianity. In fact, I would have to say that I was not a Christian in any
serious sense of the word. My early spirituality was at least as much a nature
mysticism as it was Christian.
My convincement experience was rather unusual; I was first
called to be a minister before I became a serious Christian. My calling came very
clearly, despite the fact I had never before considered the ministry. Given my
background, I began to prepare to become a Friends pastor. I took some religion
courses in college, where I became very interested in the Bible. I went on to
Union Theological Seminary, here in New York, where I continued to emphasize
study in the Bible. Hebrew Scripture spoke first to me. It was only in my
second year of seminary that my spiritual life began to form decisively around
the person of Jesus Christ.
I was finally a Christian, but there was nothing
particularly Quaker about my Christian faith. I was steeped in the
neo-orthodoxy of Bonhoeffer and others, which still echoed in the halls of
Union Seminary. It was only as I was serving in my first Friends pastorate that
I read seriously in Quakerism and discovered the message of early Friends. A
decisive event came in 1976 when I heard Lewis Benson speak on the message of
George Fox. Here was an understanding of the gospel that was new to me one that
I had never encountered in seminary, and one that spoke more clearly to my own
experience of Christ. I was caught up in the writings of Fox as I went on to
graduate school at Drew University. This work culminated in a doctoral
dissertation on Fox, which later became my first book, Apocalypse of the
Meanwhile, I had always sensed spiritual wholeness in
non-Christians, though certainly not in everyone Christian or non-Christian.
That of God in everyone is no automatic pilot, and people do ignore and repress it. There is too much evil evident in the
world to imagine otherwise. But the spiritual integrity of many non-Christians
is too clear to deny. Thus, my Quaker universalism is based upon a discernment
of people first of all, not upon theories of comparative religion. The
religious life and convictions of people are a secondary question. Indeed, even
Paul (in Romans) and the Book of Revelation agree that the true test of people
is their actions.
does seem only reasonable to assume that a variety of religious traditions have
sought to interpret the universal experience of the light, and to bring people
more fully into it. Thus, on a personal level, as a Christian, I can rejoice in
the light I find shining in the lives of good Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus,
Native Americans, etc. And it seems that their religious practices do deepen
their lives in God’s light. They are participating in traditions with centuries
of development and depth in the discipline of spiritual life.
That brings us to
the second level of the Christian-universalist question: the historical
tradition of Quakerism and our shared witness as Friends. What about
universalism on the corporate level of faith and practice? We agree that
religious truth is out there at large in the world. The light is expressed in
many shades, through historical and cultural circumstances. But should the
Society of Friends be a pluralistic body? That is a different question
altogether. We have just agreed (I hope) that the various religious beliefs and
practices of the world’s religions do make a difference for people’s lives.
Therefore, it makes a difference when people learn and practice them together.
But each religious
tradition is idiomatic to its own cultural and historic circumstances. Each
religious language is thus only partially translatable to another one. Any
language, religious or otherwise, is enriched by a variety of idioms that can
only be loosely and clumsily translated. One becomes most expressive not by
knowing a lot of languages slightly, but by knowing one or two in depth, in
their idiomatic richness and texture.
It is true that Christ-centered Friends too often believe
that theirs is the only true language of the Spirit, distrusting all others.
But it is also true that Quaker universalists too often dabble in a lot of
religious and psychological concepts, systems, and traditions without taking
any one of them to any real depth. When Quakerism gets too far removed from its
unique Christian spirituality, it becomes shallow, relativistic, trendy. This
is a problem in many meetings today. There is no longer a sufficiently defined
spiritual path that meeting members practice seriously. There is no shared
vision that can bring worship and ministry to depth. Messages become
rationalistic or sentimental, pious or political, but they do not speak from
the depth to the depth.
To identify Quakerism as Christian is not to affirm all the
worst excesses and corruptions of Christian history, as Quaker universalists
sometimes seem to believe. The Quaker spirituality is a unique form of
Christian spirituality, which sustained Friends powerfully until this century.
There is a great idiomatic richness in this spiritual tradition, which is
barely suggested by the remaining traces of Quaker vocabulary still used among
us today. That richness partakes of centuries of reflection upon personal
experience, in the light of the Bible’s teachings and history. It has been
refined and sharpened by centuries of threshing and discerning which
expressions fit the tradition and which expressions are extraneous. There is
great uniting power in this tradition, both for personal spiritual growth and
for collective faith and action. Both pastoral and liberal Quakerisms have
diluted its richness through the acceptance of extraneous cultural influences.
As a result, we are not serious Quakers or serious Buddhists. We become
half-baked evangelicals or cosmopolitan dilettantes in “religions of the
What is needed for a dynamic Quakerism of the future? Quaker
universalism offers an important outlook for our life in a modern pluralistic
culture. There is no way to go back to the “good old days” of Christendom. Who
wants to go back there? I certainly do not! Quaker universalism is essential to
our future as a basis for interfaith dialogue and collaboration in social and
political witness. But Quaker
universalism does not form the basis for an internally coherent
Society of Friends with a clear identity and purpose of its own. It is much too
vague and generalized about spirituality to offer Friends a way to grow and
deepen in the Spirit.
Our identity, sense
of purpose, and internal coherence must be rediscovered in our traditional
identity as a Christian body that embraces truth and faithfulness wherever they
may be. That was the outlook of John Woolman, who could see the light witnessed
in the various religions he knew of in his day, including Native American
religions. But he recognized his path as a Friend to be the Christian path.
Truth may be out there everywhere, but with concrete individuals and religious
bodies, it has to be somewhere in particular. There is nothing unique and
transforming about a pluralistic aggregation of spiritual seekers meeting to
tolerate and affirm one another in whatever truths they wish to accept. Such a
loose jumble of individualists is in fact redundant and unnecessary in a
society where religious freedom is already guaranteed. It is true that our
secular rights of religious freedom are under attack from fundamentalists
today. But we can answer those attacks more powerfully as Christian
universalists who witness the gospel to mean freedom, not repression.
If Quakerism amounts
to believing whatever I want to, I can do that pretty well at home on my own as
a religious consumer, choosing among religious “ideas.” But to be a religious
producer, growing spiritually and morally, aiding others in their growth, and
making a coherent witness to the world, I need a group with better focus and
purpose. I currently am leading a study of the Gospel of John at Pendle Hill.
Friends have often referred to John as “the Quaker gospel.” Our class has been
wrestling with the fundamental tension that John builds into the prologue,
which is played out in the rest of the story: the light, the word, life in God,
enlightens everyone in the world. People often refuse to acknowledge or follow
this light, but it is there and available to all. So there is a strong
universalist element in John. To believe that the light was expressed in a
particular life male, Jewish, 2000 years ago is a leap of faith that should
give us all some pause. Yet it is through that limitedness that a story
unfolds, a story that can bring all our stories into sharper focus.
Jesus was a Jewish teacher who confirmed his own religious
heritage. But he also affirmed the spiritual life of non-Jews he met, like the
Samaritan woman. Jesus embodied a life of faith that was highly focused; he
affirmed and worked creatively within his own inherited tradition. Yet he also
embodied a faith that was focused without becoming narrow; he did not exclude
others from the light he knew they shared with him. I will not forsake the
universality of that light simply because many of my universalist Friends want
to embody all things and sometimes seem rather unfocused. Neither will I give
up the Christian particularity of the light simply because others of my
Christ-centered Friends want to define the truth narrowly and exclude its
movement at large in the world. If we live rooted and grounded in the truth, we
can resist the temptation to be alienated and polarized by one another’s lapses
The energy and life for modern Quakerism (indeed, for modern
Christianity at its best) is found in the dynamic tension between the
particular and the universal. Those who are willing to live with that tension
will be energized to do great things together. Christian faith helps me see
that while there are many good spiritual paths in the world, I have but one
life to live, and I can go the furthest when I take one of those paths all the
way. And Jesus calls me to follow him in his path.
There is, and must be, room for religious diversity in the
Society of Friends. But I believe that if we reclaim the unique Christian
spirituality of Quakerism as the shared core of our faith, then we will reach
more deeply to that of God in everyone, and speak truth more coherently to the
powers of our age. God in everyone, and speak truth more coherently to the
powers of our age.